1954 was a time of many great musicians, like Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, and The Drifters. And of course, these talented artists produced many great songs.
Here are some examples of the best songs from 1954.
“Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets
Rock ‘n roll wasn’t always considered good music, which is why the success of “Rock Around the Clock” was so revolutionary. As sung by Bill Haley and His Comets, the song became the first rock ‘n roll record to reach the top of North American and British pop charts.
Its success wasn’t limited to 1954. The 12-bar blues rhythm it used was so catchy that it became the signature tune for Haley and His Comets. It was still popular in 1956.
“Little Things Mean A Lot” by Kitty Kallen
“Little Things Mean A Lot” was written by Edith Linderman and Carl Stutz. It’s a song many people don’t remember, but it's important to any discussion of good music from 1954 because it was named the best song of 1954.
It was a runaway success in North America and Britain. Kitty Kallen sang the most recognizable version, but several other artists capitalized on its success and did versions themselves, including:
- Alma Cogan
- Joni James
- Margo Smith
“Shake, Rattle, and Roll” by Joe Turner
Jesse Stone wrote “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” for Joe Turner at the suggestion of Ahmet Ertegun.
Stone played with different phrases he thought would suit Turner, already distinctive for his bluesy wailing vocalizations.
Stone settled on “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” as the phrase that would do Turner the most justice. But it wasn’t the first time it got used by a composer as a song refrain with verve. It also has a long vaudevillian and ragtime tradition.
But whereas Stone wrote about dancing to the beat, the vaudevillian ragtime song was about gambling and dice.
“Goodnite Sweetheart” by The Spaniels
Calvin Carter and James “Pookie” Hudson wrote “Goddnite Sweetheart” in 1951. But it wasn’t picked up and recorded until The Spaniels got hold of it in 1953.
After that, it was an American favorite. The Spaniels’ doo-wop version of the melody was especially prevalent and was one of the most-played jukebox selections by 1954.
Other versions were recorded by:
- The McGuire Sisters
- Johnnie and Jack
- Sunny Gale
“Make Love to Me” by Jo Stafford
A staple of good music from 1954 is jazz music, and Jo Stafford was an integral part of that musical landscape. She’s best known for “Haunted Heart,” but here she sings the fast-paced and upbeat “Make Love to Me.”
What stands out about this song is the number of musicians involved in its collaboration. Most songs have one or two artists behind them, but “Make Love to Me” was written not only by Bill Norvas and Alan Copeland but also by all five New Orleans Rhythm Kings.
That’s because while the lyrics were original, the melody came from The New Orleans Rhythm Kings' earlier composition, “Tin Roof Blues.”
“Three Coins In The Fountain” by The Four Aces
Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn wrote the music and lyrics respectively, for “Three Coins In The Fountain.” The song was supposed to be the musical centerpiece of a film of the same title. Accordingly, Styne and Cahn were encouraged to make the song suit the film.
The only catch was that they couldn’t watch the film or read the script. Famously, they wrote the song in an hour.
Although Sinatra sang the song for the film, it was The Four Aces' rendition of “Three Coins In A Fountain” that became one of the best songs of 1954.
“That’s All Right” by Elvis Presley with Scotty and Bill
“That’s All Right” started as a blues hit. Arthur Crudup recorded it, and when the record was finally issued in 1949, it had the distinction of being what many consider the first rock ‘n roll record. It also features the first guitar solo.
That was in 1949. In 1953, while recording another album, Elvis Presley decided he’d do a version of “That’s All Right.” He sang the song between recording takes, and his talent for rockabilly got him noticed.
“That’s All Right,” sung by Presley became a record in its own right. Suddenly, “That’s All Right” was one of the best songs of 1954. But although Presley credited Crudup as the composer, the other man never received royalties for Presley’s more successful recording.
“Earth Angel” by The Penguins
The Penguins sang “Earth Angel” on their debut album, and it quickly became one of the best songs of 1954.
It was The Penguins’ one significant musical hit, and interestingly, they never recorded an official version. When “Earth Angel” was first released, the plan was to overdub the demo with more instrumentation. But the demo was so wildly successful that that never happened.
It was so popular that many other artists recorded cover versions, including:
- The Crew-Cuts
- Gloria Mann
- Tiny Tim
- Johnny Tillotson
“Secret Love” by Doris Day
You can’t talk about good music from 1954 without mentioning Doris Day. Day had many hits, but one of the best-known from this year was “Secret Love.”
Sammy Faln and Paul Francis Webster wrote the song for Calamity Jane, where Day sang and acted her way through the lead role/
Day found the song deeply moving, and it suited her. When she went to rehearse with the orchestra, her first run-through of the song was so remarkable that it became the recording the film used.
“White Christmas” by The Drifters
The Drifters were another artistic group that sang some of the best songs of 1954. That said, some were more likely than others.
We don’t often think of “White Christmas” performed by anyone besides Irving Berlin. But in 1954, The Drifters produced a version that took the world by storm.
“Misty” by Erroll Garner
Earlier, we mentioned jazz played a prominent role in determining what constituted good music in 1954. “Misty” is an excellent example. It was a prominent jazz standard at the time, first sung by Erroll Garner.
Garner wrote and performed the song as an instrumental composition. Later, Johnny Burke added lyrics.
“Misty’s” success wasn’t limited to 1954. It became a signature melody for jazz artists like:
- Johnny Mathis
- Sarah Vaughan
Versions were also done by:
- Ella Fitzgerald
- Aretha Franklin
- Frank Sinatra
“Sincerely” by The Moonglows
Moonglow band members Harvey Fuqua and Alan Freed collaborated on “Sincerely.”
The song was part of The Moonglow’s first recording, and shortly after its release, it became one of the best songs of 1954.
“Sh-Boom” by The Chords
Another important song when discussing good music from 1954 is “Sh-Boom.”
Several members of The Chords collaborated to produce it. But they couldn’t have foreseen its success. As one of the first doo-wop albums to reach the top ten of America’s Billboard Charts, “Sh-Boon” became one of the best songs of 1954 almost overnight.
The group’s producer was initially reluctant, feeling the song lacked commercial success. Ironically, it was the only hit The Chords ever recorded.
“This Ole House” by Rosemary Clooney
Sometimes called “This Old House,” this is another example of the best songs of 1954.
Stuart Hamblen took inspiration for “This Ole House” while on a hunting holiday in the Sierra. He and his party stumbled across an isolated hut where a dog sat guarding the body of his deceased master.
Moved by the scene, Hamblen wrote what became “This Ole House.” The song details the dying words of a man who lives in an increasingly decrepit house.
Clooney sang the song with great feeling. That, combined with its message, ensured it moved audiences in North America and Britain.
“Answer Me, My Love” by Nat King Cole
Another singer instrumental in shaping what was good music in 1954 is Nat King Cole. Cole’s reputation is primarily for his jazz, which is excellent. But before that, his rich, warm vocals made him the ideal radio crooner.
“Answer Me” is the perfect example. It’s gently melodic, with swooping, romantic phrasing.
“Stranger In Paradise” by Tony Bennet
Tony Benet’s serenade “Stranger In Paradise” is another example of good music from 1954.
Written for the musical Kismet, “Strangers In Paradise” reworks a melody from the opera Prince Igor.
The opera isn’t memorable. As sung by Tony Bennet, it became an intimate, swooning melody. The combination of the song’s nostalgia, sentimentality, and a hint of exoticism was an effective one.
Prince Igor might remain underperformed, but “Strangers In Paradise” was undeniably one of the best songs of 1954.
“In The Jailhouse Now” by Webb Pierce
One of the more unlikely candidates for the best songs of 1954 is “In The Jailhouse Now.” Sung by Webb Pierce, the song shares a melody with “Midnight Special.”
But whereas “Midnight Special” is instrumental, “In the Jailhouse Now” has lyrics. It also has a storied history that goes back to the 1920s.
Lyrics vary depending on the singer, but the most notorious tells the story of Ramblin’ Bob. However, the lyrics are flexible and over time, have expanded to encompass all manner of wrongdoing, from election fraud to cheating at cards.
In addition to Pierce’s memorable country recording, it’s also sung as a blues, jazz, and bluegrass song. It famously features in the film Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
“Fly Me To The Moon” by Kaye Ballard
“Fly Me To The Moon” is known to many as one of Frank Sinatra’s most popular songs. But before that, it was one of the best songs of 1954.
Written by Bart Howard, the first recording of “Fly Me To The Moon” came from Kay Ballard.
It was a breakthrough for Howard, who spent years as an aspiring composer. Not everyone was immediately convinced and tried to change some of the song’s most memorable lyrics. Howard refused, and rightly so, when “Fly Me To The Moon” became one of his most successful compositions.
“You’ll Never Walk Alone” by Roy Hamilton
Rogers and Hammerstein are the musical duo behind this example of good music from 1954.
The pair have an interesting preoccupation with lark symbolism, using it repeatedly in their work. “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is no exception.
However, the lark imagery dovetails with the song's soaring melody and encapsulates themes of longing and freedom beautifully. No wonder when Roy Hamilton sang it, it became one of the best songs of 1954.
Today, it’s better known as the sports anthem for Manchester United. But originally, it was a sentimental song full of a father’s dreams for his daughter, and that’s how Hamilton sings it.
“In The Chapel In The Moonlight” by Kitty Kallen
“In The Chapel In The Moonlight” was a popular song from 1936. Billy Hill wrote it, and initially, Shep Fields performed it. It would have been promptly forgotten if Kitty Kallen hadn’t revived it in 1954.
Kallen was so successful with the song that several artists decided to do renditions themselves, including Dean Martin and The Bachelors.
“That’s Amore” by Dean Martin
“That’s Amore” is as fast-paced as it is whimsical. And improbable though it seems, Dean Martin made it one of the best songs of 1954.
It became one of Martin’s signature pieces, but it first appeared as part of the comedy film The Caddy. Later it made a surprising appearance on the noir-styled television show Veronica Mars as the musical cue for a scene that was anything but comedic.
“Mr. Sandman” by The Chordettes
Written by Pat Ballard in 1954, “Mr. Sandman” enjoyed immediate popularity. The Chordettes weren’t the first group to record the song that year, but their version is the best known.
Ballard’s song isn’t just catchy, it’s clever. The titular sandman refers to the folkloric bringer of dreams. But the dreams the speaker wants aren’t only the kind you have while asleep. There’s also an allusion to dreamy or romantic people.
Listen to how the pronouns linked to Mr. Sandman’s dreams change depending on who’s singing.
“Don’t You Know” by Ray Charles
Yet another excellent song from 1954 is Ray Charles' “Don’t You Know.” Charles wrote and performed the piece himself. When it debuted in August 1954, the combination of the lyrics’ poetry and the zesty, propulsive vocals made it immediately popular.
Like many songs that became triumphs for the composers behind them, “Don’t You Know” began life as a musical riff during a practice session. You wouldn’t know that to listen to it.
“Teach Me Tonight” by Dinah Washington
Gene de Paul and Sammy Cahn collaborated on the music and lyrics of “Teach Me Tonight.”
When Dinah Washington sang it in 1954, no one suspected it would become one of the go-to examples of good music from 1954. But its themes of love, learning, and yearning resonated, and it became extremely successful.
Washington wasn’t the only artist to have success with the song. Others include:
- Sarah Vaughan
- Jo Stafford
- Diana Krall
“Blue Moon of Kentucky” by Elvis Presley
Talking about good music from 1954 is challenging if you only mention Elvis Presley once. That’s not because the year was short of musical hits but because Presley had so many of them.
“Blue Moon of Kentucky” featured on the other side of “That’s All Right” and enjoyed an equal degree of success. That’s unsurprising; By that point in Presley’s career, many felt he couldn’t produce a wrong note.
“Lovey Dovey” by The Clovers
Eddie Curtis and Ahmet Ertegun of “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” fame came back together to write “Lovey Dovey.” It was a popular song in 1954, and the version performed by The Clovers is best known of all.
It’s a playful exploration of love and has inspired many cover versions, including recordings by:
- Clyde McPhatter
- Buddy Knox
- Dick Dale
“Rock Island Line” by Lonnie Donegan
Finally, folk music played a critical part in the discourse surrounding good music in 1954.
“Rock Island Line,” with its story about a train that is impossibly in two places at once, goes back to 1929 and tells the story of a real if less improbable railway.
John Lomax rescued the song from obscurity while visiting an Arkansas prison and passed it on to Lead Belly, who made it famous.
By 1954, many artists wanted to do a version of the song, often changing the lyrics. The most memorable of these revised versions came from Lonnie Donegan.
Top Songs From 1954, Final Thoughts
The best songs of 1954 encompass many different genres and artists. Elvis Presley was one of the most popular singers, but he wasn’t the only successful musician that year.
It’s difficult to discuss 1954 without also mentioning The Drifters, Kitty Kallen, and Rosemary Clooney. Even that only scratches the surface.
So, call up a playlist, get comfortable, and start listening. You’ll find there’s lots of good music to emerge from 1954.